A professional video game player from Hong Kong has been banned from a top global tournament after shouting slogans in support of anti-government protests in the city. It’s the latest example of how a popular sport has been dragged into tensions over the months-long political unrest.
Ng Wai Chung, also known as “Blitzchung,” was a competitor in the ongoing Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament, in the Asia-Pacific division. The event was for players of the online card game Hearthstone.
During an interview after a match last weekend, Ng appeared on a livestream wearing goggles and a gas mask — an allusion to months of protests in Hong Kong, where demonstrators have taken to the streets wearing similar gear.
Ng shouted the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” in Mandarin before the stream cut away to the two presenters.
Ng’s comments on the livestream were later republished on Twitter by the esports news website Inven Global.
— Inven Global (@InvenGlobal) October 6, 2019
On Tuesday, Blizzard Entertainment, Hearthstone’s developer and publisher, said in a statement that Ng’s words constituted “individual behavior which does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports.”
According to Blizzard, Ng violated a competition rule that prohibits “engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group or the public, or otherwise damages (the) Blizzard image.”
Blizzard said Ng has been removed from the competition and will receive no prize money despite having won six matches. He will also be unable to participate in any Hearthstone esports events until October 5, 2020. According to tournament rules, Ng would have been on track to take home at least $3,000 of a total $500,000 prize pool if he hadn’t been disqualified.
“While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules,” Blizzard said in its statement.
“Blizzard’s decision now is what I expect,” Ng told CNN Business on Tuesday. “I [decided] to say the slogan because I think I have to duty and right to say it.”
“I wish to grab more attention for the current issue in Hong Kong and to tell the protesters who watched my speech that I’m on their side,” he added. “The ban is unfair to me, but I respect their decision.”
His removal from the competition has been met with outrage from some in Hong Kong. Lo Kin-hei, a local district councilor, called Blizzard “another company kowtowing to Beijing” in a tweet.
“Stand up world, those [yuan] you earn will haunt you finally. Fight against Beijing bully, not submit to it,” Lo tweeted.
The Hearthstone controversy comes as a more traditional sport is facing its own crisis over Hong Kong. Over the weekend, the general manager for the Houston Rockets NBA team expressed support for the protests online. The backlash from China was swift and furious: The Chinese Basketball Association suspended all cooperation, and the Chinese consulate general in Houston urged the team to “immediately correct the mistakes.”
In response, the NBA said it recognizes that the general manager’s views “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
That however, was not enough for some in China. CCTV Sports, the state broadcaster, said it was dropping all pre-season matches in China over the scandal. On Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “NBA’s exchanges and cooperation with China have lasted a long time. They know exactly what they should say and do.”
This comes as protests in Hong Kong become even more heated. Pro-democracy, anti-government demonstrations in the Asian financial hub have been going on for nearly four months now, and are becoming even more violent.